Monstrous machines and biting dogs – Keith Haring´s Alphabet at the Albertina

Keith Haring is perhaps best known for his funky cartoons of happy babies with halos and line drawings of Mickey Mouse look-alikes.  At first glance his use of garish colours and popping black silhouettes gives the impression of a happy cartoon world.  What you can buy on buttons and T-shirts are often his happier motifs.   But look again!  There is a depth to his work that can make a casual viewer quite uncomfortable.

Computer caterpillar
Haring painted this caterpillar with a computer head in 1983. He used computers and robots in his art to depict fear of new technologies and their dominance over humans.

As I walked through the extensive exhibition of Keith Haring´s Alphabet at the Albertina  during my latest instawalk with  Instagramers Austria,  apart from the well known barking dogs and happy baby as well as erotic and sexual scenes, I perceived  much fear and violence, especially in some of his later  work.

His early work in New York City began with “subway drawings”, chalk line drawings on unused black advertising panels.  When he became more famous he also produced colorful murals with social messages throughout New York, as well as in Paris and on the Berlin Wall. 

The Mouse
Haring grew up in the age of Walt Disney cartoons and Dr. Seuss children´s books. He built some of these characters into his own cartoons. Variations on the famous Mouse are a recurring theme in his pictures.

 

Keith Haring did enjoy parties and club life in New York City.  His fluorescent paintings express the vibrant energy he experienced in the City with fellow artists and friends, and also reflect the atmosphere in its clubs in the 1980s, when fluorescent wall decor was quite popular.

hat man
The “man in the hat” (actually a fellow Instagramer) always makes such good foreground, especially when wearing fluorescent beads to match the artworks.

Haring deliberately gave most of his pictures no titles in order not to force with any interpretation on the viewer, but rather to allow a “stream of unconsciousness” to flow freely.

Tribute to John Lennon
When John Lennon was killed in 1981, Haring decided to paint this picture of a person with a hole in the stomach, perhaps representing the gunshot wound. The dogs jumping through the hole may be a reference to the Egyptian god Anubis, who is depicted with a canine head and is associated with death.

 

 

the longest painting
The Matrix (1983). This is Haring´s longest drawing, 15 meters long, covering an entire wall at the Albertina. It intricately interweaves many different symbols. The meaning is anyone´s guess.

 

Some of Haring´s paintings appear ornamental but are evidently meant  to send messages and warnings.  The exhibitions´s curator likens this garish yellow painting to Hieronymus Bosch´s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – which is equally disturbing (and which you can ´see at the Akademiegalerie, by the way).  It´s like something out of a nightmare:  a giant monster and various other horrible creatures consisting mostly of humanoid body parts that devour, torture and digest humans.

Allusion to Bosch
Hard on the eyes and the mind: The artist drew this nightmarish scene of human suffering at the hand of sexualized monsters during a time when many of his friends were dying of AIDS.

 

Haring was not just an artist, he was also an activist.  With his art Keith Haring tried to fight  against racism, homophobia and oppression.  He rejected every form of fundamentalism and fanaticism.  In later years he became active in raising awareness about HIV and AIDS.

Before his death from AIDS-related complications  he founded the Keith Haring Foundation, which since 1989 preserves and circulates his artwork and archives, and makes grants to children in need and those affected by HIV/AIDS in the spirit of the artist.  The artist would have been 60 years old this year.  Sadly, he died in 1990, only 32 years old.

Haring´s last painting
This was Haring´s last painting, depicting a crowd of jubilant masses. He may have meant to criticize the ease with which masses of people can be manipulated.

 

The exhibition at the Albertina is on view until 24 June 2018.



Whether you like his work or not, his causes are surely worthwhile.  Spread Keith Haring´s vision for social justice using #ShareLove and #Fighthate on your social media channels! 

Fight hate

Thank you, Instagramers Austria and AlbertinaMuseum for the tour.

You can read more  about Keith Haring at the Foundation´s website.


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